Assault weapon ban's effectiveness debated
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On the streets of Pittsburgh, they call it the "chopper."
It's the AK-47 assault rifle, a favorite of the gangster set.
See a graphic that compares two nearly identical assault-style rifles
"They're still at a premium," said William Mullen, deputy police chief. "It's the street mentality. It strikes fear in everyone."
In the gang wars of the early 1990s, the AK-47 turned up frequently in shootings.
No more. New ones were banned for 10 years starting in 1994, along with 18 other assault-style weapons and magazines holding more than 10 rounds.
Although Pittsburgh has recorded one murder this year involving an AK-47, police aren't encountering them often anymore, much to their relief.
"You don't see them like you used to," said Mullen. "And we don't have shootings like we used to, where someone pulls up to a corner and sprays it with an AK-47 and hits innocent people."
But that doesn't mean you can't find a gun that looks an awful lot like an AK-47, or its cousin, the AR-15, at your neighborhood gun shop. Walk into most any gun retailer and you'll see sleek, black military-style weapons for sale.
The uninitiated might ask an obvious question: Weren't these things banned?
The short answer is "no."
"There are still AK-47s around," said gun dealer Calvin Hoover, owner of Hoover Outfitting & Supply in Somerset County. "There are numerous guns on the market that fall into that assault-weapon category."
The reason for that, and the question of whether these weapons should be available at all, is central to a complex, polarizing national debate that has now arrived in Pennsylvania.
At issue is the Federal Assault Weapons Act of 1994, which is set to expire in September.
Police organizations and anti-gun-violence groups, such as the nonprofit Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, want it renewed and are pushing for even stricter federal and state laws.
"It is the potential to cause mayhem that is at the core of why they need to be banned," said Brian J. Siebel, senior attorney for the Brady Center's Legal Action Project and the author of a report released this month saying the weapons ban has reduced gun crimes. "They have no legitimate civilian purpose. They are weapons of war."
But gun-rights advocates, gun makers and the National Rifle Association want the ban lifted and oppose any new ones.
"It is really misguided if your aim is to reduce crime," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, whose organization will hold its national convention in Pittsburgh next month. "Additional gun-control laws only burden law-abiding citizens. Most criminals do not obtain their guns through legal means."
Would close loopholes
Now some Pennsylvania legislators are wading into this fight, saying a state law banning assault weapons is necessary in case the federal ban is not renewed.
Although President Bush has said he will sign a reauthorization if it reaches his desk, that seems increasingly unlikely.
The Senate recently killed a Republican-sponsored bill that would have protected gun makers from lawsuits. The bill included two amendments, one requiring background checks for buyers at gun shows and another that would have extended the ban. The overall bill was scuttled because of those add-ons.
Another federal bill has been introduced that would further restrict assault-style weapons, but in the meantime, state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, and 22 of his colleagues are pushing House Bill 2451, which would outlaw all assault weapons of any kind for good in the state.
The proposed state law would be much tougher than the federal ban, which Frankel and the Brady Center say isn't strict enough.
"I know that at the time it was perceived that there were lots of concerns about it, but I think it was seen as at least some progress," said Frankel. "You get what you can."
He said his legislation would close loopholes that gun makers have exploited.
Under the federal ban, the makers of specific models such as the Uzi, AK-47, Colt AR-15, Beretta AR 70 and the TEC-9 were prohibited from making new ones. But guns made before 1994 were grandfathered in, as were high-capacity magazines made before that year. The AR-15 and its clones are copies of the U.S. military's M16 weapon. The AK-47 and its look-alikes are copies of the Russian Kalashnikov military rifle.
Frankel's bill would grandfather in assault weapons owned before the law goes into effect, but also would require owners to submit to a background check, register the weapon with the state police and use the gun only on the owner's property or at a firing range.
A much larger loophole is what the Brady Center calls the "copycat" problem, which explains why gun shops are still stocked with all kinds of assault-style weapons.
"The gun industry responded to the [ban] by renaming guns and/or making minor changes in guns to skirt the ban," wrote Siebel in the Brady report.
The report says the ban was supposed to include copycats, but that provision has not been enforced.
One example of a copycat cited in the report is a rifle called the PCR, made by Olympic Arms of Olympia, Wash. PCR stands for "Politically Correct Rifle." After the ban, Siebel said, the company redesigned its guns to evade the law. The weapon is essentially an AR-15 copy, but he said Olympic made a few cosmetic changes, such as removing the bayonet lug, to "skirt" the ban.
Siebel said another maker, Intratec of Miami, also played games with its gun names. When the District of Columbia enacted a law in 1991 imposing strict liability for shootings with Intratec's TEC-9 assault-style pistol, the company "mockingly" renamed it the TEC-DC9, Siebel said.
The TEC-DC9 was the gun used in the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. After the 1994 ban, Intratec changed the name again, this time to the "AB-10." AB stands for "after ban," but it was largely the same gun.
'Define an assault weapon'
Intratec's production of pistols dropped after the ban from 75,102 in 1994 to 5,820 in 1996, according to Siebel's report. The company went out of business in 2001.
Frankel's bill, similar to one passed in California in 1989, would make it much harder for companies to make copycats.
"My legislation addresses that loophole," he said. "Our bill has a broad, generic definition of what an assault weapon is."
Gun makers deny they've dodged the law, insisting they are just trying to stay within it. In addition to banning specific guns by name, the 1994 law defined an assault weapon as one that had at least two combat features, such as a folding stock, bayonet mount or flash suppressor.
By removing some of those, as Olympic did with its PCR bayonet lug, gun companies made their weapons legal and don't think they should have to apologize for it.
"It takes much more than just changing the name," said Butler County native Tom Spithaler, Olympic's marketing director. "The people who wrote those laws don't understand how these guns function. For them to say we're skirting the law is a fallacy. We are obeying the law. We're not purposely looking for loopholes."
Gun dealers agree.
"They did everything they could to comply," said Hoover, the gun shop owner in Somerset. "Define an assault weapon. This is the problem."
A key definition involves the ammunition clip, not the gun itself.
"The high-capacity magazine is what truly makes them most dangerous," Siebel said. "It's the ability to accept a high-capacity magazine that allows the weapon to have greater firepower." With a pre-ban clip and depending on its size, a shooter could fire off as many as 150 rounds without reloading. The new ones are limited to 10 rounds. But that doesn't mean new guns can't use old clips.
"We didn't lose that many assault guns to the ban," said Hoover. "The only thing the ban really did was affect the size of the clips. But you could still use larger clips if they were made before 1994."
Siebel's report says that's a problem, too.
Bushmaster, for example, sells a high-capacity magazine for such weapons as its XM-15, an AR-15 copy used in the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings.
"Although the [law] prohibits the manufacture of ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds," the report says, "Bushmaster apparently stockpiled enough 'pre-ban' magazines that it still markets 40-round ammunition magazines as available for sale to the general public for only $24.95."
Bushmaster's Web site says the magazine can't be shipped to California, Maryland and New Jersey. Those states all have laws restricting the capacity of magazines.
Despite what the Brady Center describes as industry attempts to sidestep the law, the study shows a drop in the use of assault-style weapons in crimes, based on figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
According to the figures, weapons banned by name in 1994 have dropped from 4.82 percent of the crime-gun traces collected by ATF from 1990 to 1994, to 1.6 percent since then.
Figuring in crimes committed with copycat guns, the study still shows a 45 percent decline during the past 10 years.
An ATF spokesman, Andrew Lluberes, said Friday, however, that the agency can "in no way vouch for the validity'' of the report.
And the NRA's Arulanandam said that although he hadn't seen the report, he always suspects figures presented by the Brady Center.
He suggested that the reason fewer assault-style weapons were being used in crimes is that the overall crime rate is dropping. He also said assault weapons were not used often in crimes even before the ban.
"Most criminals, when they commit a crime, the firearm of choice is going to be a handgun," he said. "They aren't going to commit crime with a big gun."
He cited a Pennsylvania state police data base showing that out of 3,494 gun crimes between 1989 and May 1994, only 88 involved assault-style weapons.
But Siebel said assault-weapon crimes were out of proportion considering so few are around.
"I don't think anyone would suggest that 60,000 additional crimes is something that weshould ignore."
First Published March 28, 2004 12:00 am